Introduction

(traduction en français)

 

Over the past twenty-five years, French singer-songwriter Renaud has emerged as his country’s leading exponent of chanson sociale, a rich and diverse tradition of popular song which has helped to rally, educate and galvanise dispossessed groups in French society since the first half of the nineteenth century. Renaud became well-known in the second half of the 1970s by singing about zonards (delinquent youths) from the housing estates of suburban Paris. Since then, he has tackled a range of themes, from military service and heroin addiction to the destruction of the environment and capitalist imperialism in the Third World. His repertoire includes love songs, chansons idiotes (a comical, risqué genre), traditional chansons réalistes from the Belle Epoque and interwar years, and songs by his idol, Georges Brassens. He has produced a series of charmingly naive illustrations to accompany his own songs. He has also performed as an actor, most notably in the role of Etienne Lantier, in Claude Berry’s 1993 screen adaptation of Zola’s Germinal. He has written a children’s book entitled La Petite vague qui avait le mal de mer (1989) as well as a regular column for the satirical, left-wing weekly, Charlie-Hebdo. An outspoken supporter of numerous minority causes, he recently joined the Régions et Peuples Solidaires list led by the Corsican autonomist Max Simeoni at the 1994 European elections.

 

Renaud is known primarily for the provocative anarchism and linguistic inventiveness which characterise his songwriting. He has roused the ire of politicians on both the Left and the Right. Some of his songs have been banned outright; others have simply been given little or no airplay. However, he has achieved spectacular commercial and critical success. By 1981, his album sales generated 45% of Polydor’s annual profits. His lyrics are studied in university French departments all over the world and were extensively used as a primary source by the authors of the Dictionnaire de l’argot, published by Larousse in 1990. His songs have been turned into bandes dessinées (comic books) by the leading exponents of the genre. Thirty-one per cent of respondents to a Sofres-Le Nouvel observateur survey conducted among 16 to 22 year-olds during the student demonstrations of December 1986 chose Renaud from a list of public personalities as their preferred role model. Courted by the French Socialist Party and feted by the former Minister for Culture Jack Lang, Renaud has nonetheless been reviled by a number of left as well as right-wing intellectuals, for whom his success exemplifies the decline of high culture and the dumbing down of French youth.

 

This thesis seeks to understand the significance of the delinquent figure in Renaud’s early songs, from the heady days of May 1968 to his consecration as a popular star at the end of the 1970s. These songs were shaped by the confluence of various factors, including Renaud’s family background, his experiences as a student revolutionary in May 1968, the marginal social circles which he frequented during the early 1970s and his fortuitous exposure to a range of popular music styles. They offer a detailed and frequently controversial account of contemporary issues while providing a fascinating insight into the itinerary of a former soixante-huitard (participant in the May 1968 movement).

 

Renaud’s description of himself as a "writer for pleasure, composer by necessity, singer by provocation," while intentionally facetious, contains an element of truth. Like the working-class chansonniers (social songwriters) of the nineteenth century, he has used popular song primarily as a vehicle to convey verbal messages. My analysis therefore emphasises the thematic and linguistic content of Renaud’s lyrics. I discuss other aspects of his art, such as musical and performance styles, when these add to the thematic significance of the songs. I also discuss, where possible, public reactions to Renaud’s songs; however, as Peter Hawkins rightly states, "a thoroughgoing sociological study of the reception of chanson by different milieux . . . would be enormously expensive in terms of resources and man-hours, and well beyond the means of the individual researcher."

 

Renaud’s lyrics have been published in several collections. The first collection, now out of print, was published by Gérard Lebovici at Les Editions Champs Libre in 1980, under the title Sans zikmu. Les Editions du Seuil published a new collection in 1986 entitled Mistral gagnant: Chansons et dessins, which they incorporated two years later into an expanded edition, Le Temps des noyaux, suivi de Mistral gagnant: Chansons et dessins. The most recent collection was published by Livre de Poche in 1993 under the title Dès que le chant soufflera. The lyrics reproduced in this thesis are from Le Temps des noyaux; the translations are my own. I have tried where possible to capture the general flavour of Renaud’s style, although many of his songs contain cultural references, rhymes and word games which cannot be easily rendered in English. I have provided explanatory notes where necessary.

 

Most of the details concerning Renaud’s personal life are drawn from three authorised biographies by Jacques Erwan (1982), Régis Lefèvre (1985) and Renaud’s older brother Thierry Séchan (1989), and from interviews with Renaud conducted by Laurent Boyer for M6 television in 1991 and by myself in February 1992. There has been little scholarly work published on Renaud. Heinrichs Volkhard has written a short textual analysis of one song, Les Charognards, and Christian Schmitt has explored the social dimensions of Renaud’s songwriting through a linguistic study of another song, Dans mon HLM. French linguist and popular song theorist Louis-Jean Calvet has written a number of articles on Renaud’s contribution to the spoken French idiom. A great deal has also been written about Renaud in the French musical press. Quotations from French secondary sources are translated into English in the main body of this thesis and reproduced in their original form in the footnotes.


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